Oklahoma City Heads Back To The Conference Finals, 104-98

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

The Clippers' season came to an end as the Thunder rode a red hot Kevin Durant to their third Western Conference Finals in four years.

In a post-season full of unbelievable twists and turns, it was somewhat fitting that the final game of the Clippers' season was a roller coaster ride of its own. After building a lead as big as 16 in the first half, quickly shaking off the aftereffects of that devastating Game 5 to put the Thunder in an early hole, Los Angeles couldn't keep up the momentum in the game's final 24 minutes, ceding their lead as Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant overcame slow starts to carry the Thunder to victory.

It's difficult to evaluate the result of this series for the Clippers. The immediate response following Portland's post-season exit last night was that it was a great step for a young franchise and that it was a positive experience in the longrun for them to get shown the ropes by one of the best teams of all-time.

But this? This was different. The Clippers are a better basketball team than the Thunder. They play a cohesive style that lends itself to success on both ends of the floor while the Thunder rely solely on the individual abilities of their stars. Even though Los Angeles has some clunky parts, the sum of their roster is greater than the sum of Oklahoma City's. They had two great chances, both in Game 5 and tonight, to take control of this series. Instead, they coughed up big leads and now they are headed home for the summer.

And yet I can't convince myself that this was a disappointing post-season for the Clippers. It's disappointing that Chris Paul has yet to reach a conference finals in his career, it's disappointing that the addition of Doc Rivers didn't get the Clippers any further than Vinny Del Negro got them two years ago, and It's disappointing that Blake Griffin's career year ended him with him fouling out of a tight, deciding game.

But I still get the feeling that the Clippers accomplished something this post-season. They fell short of their goals and didn't live up to the lofty expectations that Rivers' arrival brought upon them, but when you look at what this team has been through over the past few weeks, can you really say that they head home for the summer as losers?

The real disappointment with this team is that a controversy involving their owner, one which had nothing to do with any of the players and could have easily been avoided had those tapes come out in the summer, interrupted what was the franchise's best shot at a title ever. As crazy as this whole situation has become, it was not something that the players could have easily brushed aside. Not only did they have to deal with constant chatter about it from the media, they had to take a step back and evaluate what they were doing each night when they were stepping onto the floor and representing a man that viewed them as slaves.

That's an incredibly tough thing to deal with emotionally and it's not something that cashing a paycheck can make go away. Amazingly, the team fought through and past everything about Donald Sterling that came their way, despite the fact that the drama never went away, with new tapes or statements or appearances from the Sterling family causing a constant disruption. After their comeback in Game 4 of this series, which was in many ways a microcosm of the Clippers' battling back from the Sterling scandal, the team had put themselves in a position to make it to the conference finals for the first time ever.

And then Game 5 happened. As much emotional damage as the Sterling saga might have caused, the meltdown in the final 47 seconds of that game struck at something way deeper with everyone in the lockerroom, inviting self-doubt into a group of men that had displayed extreme conviction in the face of adversity all post-season.

I say meltdown because that is what history will remember it as, but I'm sure we all know that everything that happened in that final minute was not the fault of the Clippers. Were Paul's turnovers and poor decisions surreal? Sure, but they'd be remembered as nothing more than an inconsequential blip if any number of the bad calls by the officials had been made correctly down the stretch.

At that point, it was extremely evident that the Clippers were beginning to question if it was possible for them to climb out of the pit of darkness that they had been thrown into. Paul's look of absolute disbelief and sadness in the post-game press conference, his dazed look portraying a soul that had been tormented by the transgressions of this post-season, was telling. One of the league's fiercest competitors, one of its best leaders and most confident athletes, was on the verge of being broken, one swing away from being down and out.

Unfortunately, the Clippers just didn't have anything left when the Thunder made their run in the second half. Durant went on an absolute tear after his 1-of-7 start, finishing with 39 points and 16 rebounds and Doc Rivers just couldn't find the right combinations to make things click. It was as if resiliency was a commodity that was kept in a tank, and Los Angeles' supply finally hit empty after the inhumane amount of fight they had to show just to be in that position.

The Clippers are not an overwhelmingly young team. Griffin is surely a rising star, but Paul will be 30 this time next year, and his body refuses to leave him alone once he reaches the post-season. Los Angeles will surely be a title contender again next season, but the most gut-wrenching part of all of this to me is that Paul loses out on another prime year in the most heartbreaking fashion after fighting tool and nail and through numerous injuries to keep his team afloat.

There is work to be done this off-season. Doc must find a way to get a competent defensive big man and another capable defender on the wing, and he'll have to seriously consider letting Jamal Crawford go in hopes of finding a better two-way threat off the bench. The catch is that he'll be working with a pretty full capsheet that will limit his flexibility when it comes to bettering the roster.

But even if the Clippers run it back with minimal changes, they have the core of a title contender with Blake ascending and Paul still putting up efficiency numbers that best every other point guard ever. Had three possessions went differently, I wouldn't need to point that out to anybody, but there is always a down period after your team's season comes to an end when you question what the ceiling of the group is.

To me, that's not going to change much next season. If anything, with a couple of modest additions to the rotation, the Clippers will be a better team next season. And it's important to remember that, while the Clippers ran out of fight in this series after an unprecedentedly tumultuous journey, you can bet that they'll be back with a vengeance next season.

And that's bad news for the rest of the league.

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